Iowa's Botched Election: Who (Or What) Counts the Votes Is Important
The public still doesn't know who won the Iowa caucuses. Maybe the leaders of the Democratic Party don't know either.
But there's an important lesson here: if one's political process is founded on votes counted through a phone app, or a "direct recording electronic" (DRE) voting machine, centralized technical control of the system raises the risk of system-wide failure and corruption.
In Iowa the downside of an electronic system was made worse by a sheer lack of competence on the part of organizers. The Iowa system was something of a hybrid between physically tallied votes that were then reported through an electronic system. Some parts of the process were directly observable and verifiable. But the electronic component of the system appeared to increase human error rather than mitigate it.
Moreover, even when results finally are announced, many will have good reason to hold the results suspect. Some will likely claim party leaders purposely held up results to make "adjustments." Others will question—quite reasonably—if the people who can't competently use the vote counting system can be trusted to properly count the votes at all.
The good news in all of this is that this is just a primary. This vote is essentially a private vote count for a private organization known as the Democratic Party. Even if the vote in Iowa is totally botched, all that legally matters is the candidate chosen at the convention this summer.
Things are different in a national elections, however. In those cases, the stakes are higher, and the motivation to influence them greater. When using electronic voting, votes can be more easily and conveniently lost or changed through error or malicious schemes. This can also be done more easily on a larger scale. Yes, paper vote counts can be corrupted, but it is more difficult to do so on a large scale.
Yet, many policymakers in many states have suggested "streamlining" the voting process by moving ever further toward DREs to count votes. Many of these same people wax philosophical about the alleged sanctity of the democratic process, or they make hysterical claims about how "Russian hackers" are trying to corrupt American politics.
This isn't to say there aren't people out there trying to tamper with vote counts. "The Russians" are not the only people with an interest in doing so. As has become abundantly clear since the election of Donald Trump, US intelligence bureaucrats at agencies like the FBI and CIA are happy to employ an endless barrage of schemes to undermine an elected president. James Comey, for instance, employed FBI investigations to enhance his own power and influence the 2016 election to suit his personal ends. We also know that the CIA and other intelligence agencies engage in cyber warfare of their own design. The idea that these skills and resources would never be employed for domestic political ends is a cute one.
The most reasonable response to all of this is to make the logistics of corrupting and "hacking" elections as daunting as possible. The first step is in insisting on old-fashioned paper ballots in all elections.
Unfortunately, fewer than half of US states require the use of physical ballots only. More than half employ electronic voting, at least in part. Some states even employ electronic voting without any sort of paper trail at all.
A big reason to employ electronic counting schemes is to make life easier for government officials. In other words, laziness and incompetence on the part of the vote-counting officials (mostly state governments' "secretaries of state") means they're looking for a way to manage vote counts with minimal logistical effort.
These officials claim it's just too difficult to count all the votes in a public, traceable, and accurate way.
And yet, the United Kingdom just held an all-paper-ballot election in a country of over 65 million people. It's not that hard. As explained here, each UK voter casts a paper ballot. The ballots are rushed to the place where they are counted. People then count the votes out in the open. Candidates can ask for multiple recounts. The candidate with the most votes is announced in each constituency. The end. As one British observer noted:
On the 24th June 2016, by approximately 6am, we had managed to count 33,577,342 votes in the UK Brexit Referendum. These votes were counted by hand and we all voted by putting a simple cross in a box, using a trusty pencil.
Now, the voting in the Iowa Caucus has been closed for over 16 hours and, as of now, there has been no result. In fact only 1.9% of the votes have been tallied and are being reported.
Now, I'm not saying the British have a perfect system, and few would accuse me of being any sort of an Anglophile. Counting votes in a Prime Minister system is a bit different. But the fact is that this isn't rocket science. Yet we now live in an America where governments can't manage their most basic functions. Yes, state and local governments are sure to pay their employees big salaries with exorbitant retirement benefits. Yet we're also being told—by these well-paid officials themselves—that in spite of perennially growing budgets, roads are falling apart and bridges are falling down. We're told school kids can't read because teaching people to read is just so, so difficult. And counting paper ballots? For these people, that's a nut that's just too hard to crack.